Chapter Ten

The rhythm of my horses’ hooves pounding the earth became all I was aware of. 

Thud, thud, thud. 

With each sounding we were closer to the warriors, closer to my father, closer to taking action and farther away from death. Hours passed, and we pushed our mounts to keep going. Cormack had made it clear that there was no time to stop, pressing his horse faster and faster, leaving me with one choice – to follow after. 

Dawn came, bringing with it the first of the three days we had to counter act what the witch sought to do. I gritted my teeth against the soreness in my body from being in the saddle for so long, the pain that shot through my legs, the tension from bracing myself against the jarring motion of the horse. It didn’t matter that I was tired. It didn’t matter that everything hurt. I would not be the weak one and waste time by stopping to rest and Cormack did not ask. 

The landscape sped by, the passing of time evident by the slow descent of the sun in the sky, telling of too many hours spent riding. 

Surely we’re nearly there . . .

“Freya!”

I reined my horse in sharply, not realizing that I’d passed Cormack. He brought his horse to stand beside mine. 

“Deep in thought were you?”

I gave him a weak smile.

“See that?” he nodded to the right. I followed his gaze, and saw the tips of tents, the smoke of fires spiraling into the air. 

“The camp,” I muttered, a wave of relief sliding through me. We’d made it. 

I glanced at Cormack and saw the tension on his face, his eyes bright with emotion. I did not know what this cost him, coming to aid me. However, in that moment I saw the weight of his decision pressing down on him in the flicker of emotions passing rapidly across his face. Uncertainty, fear, remorse. I wished I had words of comfort to give him. But I knew not what to say. 

“Oh,” I said, reaching into the pocket of my cloak.

Cormack glanced at me.

“This is for you,” I pulled the small object Thilda had given me from my pocket and held it out to him. 

Cormack stared at it as if he was seeing a ghost from a dream long past. I swallowed nervously, waiting for him to take it. But he didn’t reach for it. He simply stared at it in the palm of my hand, swallowing and blinking as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. 

“Thilda wanted me to give this to you,” I said quietly, “I don’t know what it is. Or why. But…” I reached over and took his hand, uncurling his fingers and placing the strange little object in the palm of his hand, “I think it’s supposed to give you courage.”

Cormack stared down at it for a long moment, his face turned downward and angled away from me. But I thought I saw a hint of moisture in the eyes he so hastily turned away. 

“Let’s go,” he said, his voice husky but when he raised his face to mine it was determined. I nodded and gave him a small smile, hoping to communicate the same message to him that he’d given to me. I believed in him. I was rewarded with a ghost of a smile before he heeled his mount to motion and we rode up the rise of the hill towards the camp.

***

 “It’s the Princess!”

Cries carried through the camp as word of our arrival was announced. I was struck by the appearance of the men. They looked grim, exhaustion coating their expressions and wariness in the eyes that followed Cormack with suspicion. 

“My father,” I said, my voice raspy, “where is he?”

“His tent, princess,” a young warrior answered me, his eyes skipped to Cormack before frowning.

“I must see him,” I said and slid from the saddle, my legs wobbly and uncertain on the ground. I gripped my saddle to steady myself, taking in deep breaths at the sharp pain that shot through as my muscles regained feeling.

“Very well,” he answered. 

I relinquished the reins of my horse to the hands of a warrior. I did not need to look to know Cormack was following behind me. The tension was palpable, as thick as if it were coating the air and I was breathing it in, making my shoulders tense, my chest tighten and my breath come more quickly. The eyes of the men I passed on the way to the tent were all astonished at the sight of me. Even as I walked, I could not help but turn to look at every head of dark hair I spied, my heart leaping painfully in my chest. But none of the faces that looked back was the one I wished to see. I cursed myself for my foolishness and set my eyes straight ahead. 

The flap of the tent was held open. I entered, Cormack lingering behind in the entrance. 

There was a ramshackle wooden table in the center, a dozen or so maps and pieces of parchment scattered over the surface. Three men were present, all their eyes fixed on whatever it was they had been discussing. My father stood in the middle, his hand clenched into a fist where it rested on the table, knuckles white. The other was Gavin’s father, standing to my father’s right, his eyes the first to look up and see me. There was a look of alarm that spread across his face, his eyes very much like his son’s. The third was a man I rarely spoke with, but he was a confidant of my father’s. A quiet man who had apparently abandoned his peaceful ways, if the wild look in his eyes was any indication. The war had changed them all in subtle ways. I wondered if any of the changes were for the better. 

I waited, my hands folded in front of me, for my father to look up. 

I heard a footstep behind me, and felt Cormack come stand close behind to my left. 

It took a moment, but slowly my father straightened, his eyes locking on mine from where he stood a few yards away. There was at first astonishment, then disbelief that slowly slid to anger. He opened his mouth to speak when his words caught in his throat, his face going white, eyes wide. 

I wondered what on earth could cause him to look so and then I realized he wasn’t looking at me at all anymore.

He was looking at Cormack.

Certain moments seem to stop. As if the weight and intensity of the emotion felt is so powerful that time even heeds it and passes slower as if to get a better glimpse. Such was this moment. The look on my father’s face was like nothing I’d ever seen before. In it was a pain so fierce and acute that the color was stolen from his cheeks, but that paleness was replaced a moment later by a blinding rage that colored the world red for him. 

You!”

My father’s voice thundered in the small tent.

Cormack gently pushed me to the side, so I was out of the way. He planted his feet firmly, shoulders back and gazed steadily back in the face of the baleful look my father was giving him. 

“Yes,” Cormack said, “me.”

I was scrambling in my mind to piece this all important part of the riddle together. It was apparent that my father not only knew exactly who Cormack was, but the history the two of them shared was less than friendly.

 My father was starkly furious. He knocked the table out of his way and took a few steps forward, only to turn away to gain control of himself, but I felt the blood drain away from my face when I saw him swiftly draw his sword, gripping the hilt tightly.

I took a step toward Cormack, but he saw my movement and with a flick of his hand he warned me away, shooting me a quick look as if to say this is my fight.

“I thought you were dead,” my father breathed through gritted teeth.

“You’re going to make that true without first hearing why I’ve come?” Cormack said calmly. To the outsider he appeared to be unruffled by my father’s reaction, but I saw the beads of sweat gathering on his forehead. 

My father advanced, pressing the tip of his sword against Cormack’s throat, “Tell me why I shouldn’t traitor.” He spat the word. 

Cormack’s jaw clenched, and he stared back at my father, their gazes locked. 

“I am what you say,” Cormack said quietly, “But you must hear me.”

My father pressed the tip of his sword harder against Cormack’s throat. I saw a bead of blood gather at the tip, but Cormack did not flinch. I knotted my fingers together in an effort to hold my tongue. 

“Please, brother,” Cormack said, “Hear me.”

The world seemed to reel for a moment and then right itself as another piece of the puzzle revealed itself in that one word Cormack uttered so quietly. And suddenly it all made sense. 

This is my fight, he’d said, more so than you may believe. 

I gasped and covered my mouth with my hands.

Cormack was more than a wandering soul, a merry man who decided to help me out of the kindness of his heart. I remembered his story. The story of the second son who fell in love with the woman his brother was meant to have but never wanted.

Love denied has terrible consequences, but blood betrayed has far worse ones. 

I remembered the words of the tale begun before I was born. The outspokenness of the people against the breaking of the alliance. The most outspoken of all being the king’s younger brother. 

It is said that one day they quarreled so fiercely that they drew swords against one another. After that, the younger brother declared his allegiance to the old alliance and he was never seen again . . .

Cormack was my father’s brother. He was the lost son of Harfeld, the soul that had disappeared into shadow with the breaking of the alliance. He was a figure so swathed in shame that I had never even learned his name, my father never once spoke of him to me. 

“I claim no kinship with one who deals with darkness,” my father growled. 

“I broke with the darkness,” Cormack replied, “and have come to warn you of its coming. She’s coming, brother. With fury to reckon, you must ride back and defend what you love. Leaving Harfeld was exactly what she wanted—”

My father moved so quickly it was as if I’d blinked and suddenly Cormack was flat on his back, blood pouring from his nose.

“Get this whelp from my sight,” my father ordered. Men moved forward to do his bidding, pulling Cormack to his feet and dragging him from the tent. His head was bowed, blood dripping down his face and staining his shirt.  

I stared after him, wide-eyed for a moment before turning to face my father. 

He had his back to me and was rubbing a tired hand over his eyes.

“He speaks the truth, father,” I said quietly. 

I knew my father heard me for I saw the way his shoulders suddenly tensed. 

“Please, I know he has wronged you,” I swallowed and clasped my hands together, “but he has shown great courage by coming here.”

“He has shown nothing,” my father turned back to face me, “save that he is still her’s!”

I shook my head, “You’re wrong.”

The look of anger my father sent my way would have normally caused me to immediately retract what I had just said as being wrong or out of place. But in that moment it did no such thing.

“Forgive him and listen, father,” I said, “if you do not…the consequences will be greater than a hurt pride.”

I did not wait to see what reaction my words garnered from my father, I turned and walked toward the flap of the tent.

It was then he spoke.

“You do not know what he has done, Freya,” my father said.

I paused with my hand on the rough fabric, my back still to my father. 

You do not know what he has done, Freya…

My mind was taken with the image of Cormack kneeling before the Great Prince in Blackwood Forest. How he’d said, Lord I do not deserve to fight for you. And the forgiveness on the Great Prince’s face. The compassion. The acceptance. 

“Are not we all guilty of some wrongdoing?” I said, mostly to myself, but I glanced at my father over my shoulder, “No I do not know all he has done. But I do know what he has become. A good man. He saved my life, you know. In the forest. He protected me those days I was lost. He helped my find my way back.”

I saw the astonishment on my father’s face and I nodded. 

And with that I left him. 

***

“Fey.”

I heard my name spoken as I sat by the nearest fire, trying to warm myself, my thoughts turned inward as I riddled out the threads of this tale until they blended together. I’d heard the arrival of the warriors returning as night fell.  From the looks of them, it had been another long day of fighting a force that was nothing but a diversion. A terrible diversion it was, for I saw their exhaustion, the wounded carried to the tent. The sound of their screams, the shouted orders from the officers, runners coming with word from the archers staked out on either side of the camp to ensure the resting safety. Even so, the men paid me small comforts, one coming to drape a blanket about my shoulders, another pressing a mug of something warm into my hands. The steam rose from the liquid, but I had yet to take a sip. I had not slept in more than a day and it was beginning to take its toll, as I had ridden hard for most of the night and part of the day. But I, of anyone present, did not have the right to complain. I had not been fighting. Had not been out defending the borders by day and sleeping poorly by night, staining the ground with my blood.

  I stared straight ahead, barely blinking, unable to move from the place I’d sat. I knew I should be speaking to my father, trying to make him listen. Trying to find Gavin, to make sure he was all right. Or comforting Cormack. But I found I had the energy to do nothing but stare listlessly into the flames, not even turning to respond to hearing my name called. 

“Fey.”

When I still said nothing he came to kneel in front of me, blocking my view of the mesmerizing flames with his face. The first thing I registered was how dirty and tired he looked. He must have just returned from fighting, from the looks of him. 

“You’re all right,” I reached my hand out and brushed the matted hair off of his forehead.

I was too tired to deal with the emotions the sight of him evoked, but I needed to touch him. And so, I did not stop him from taking hold of the hand I’d rested on his cheek, even with all the eyes around to see. 

“What are you doing here?”

I opened my mouth to tell him. To tell him that the witch was coming. That my father wouldn’t listen. And that the strange man who’d saved my life was actually my uncle. The lost brother who’d betrayed my father for the love of a woman draped in darkness. A woman who had a vengeance that must be sated. How my father wouldn’t believe me no matter how much I tried to make him. And then a wave of uncertainty washing over me so powerfully I knew that if I tried to speak I would most definitely cry. I gritted my teeth as Gavin looked at me, waiting. 

“You didn’t say goodbye.”

I was as surprised as Gavin was stricken at the words that finally pushed past my lips. We stayed that way, silently looking at each other. Everything we’d never said burning between us like a wall of fire, all at once drawing us closer and yet keeping us far away. 

“You’re right,” he whispered, “I didn’t.”

“Why?” my voice cracked. 

Gavin said nothing, looking away from me, swallowing and clenching his jaw. I shouldn’t have asked that question. I should have kept my mouth shut. The answer didn’t matter. I knew it would pain him to say and hurt me to hear. But the world had shifted to a different angle and everything was wrong, nothing was right. 

I heard footsteps. Gavin’s eyes flicked over my shoulder and he dropped my hand, standing swiftly. He moved around to the other side of the fire as whoever it was approached. 

“Princess Freya, the king requests your presence in his tent.”

“Very well,” I nodded, accepting the man’s hand to help me stand. 

“Sir Gavin, he wants you to come as well.”

Gavin nodded but I saw the surprise in his eyes, before I allowed myself to be led away. He followed close behind. 

When Gavin and I entered the tent, my father stood exactly where he’d been when I’d come earlier with Cormack. 

“Gavin you are going to escort my daughter back to Harfeld Castle immediately,” my father ordered without preamble. 

“No,” I gasped, “He will not.”

I felt Gavin’s gaze on me, but I was staring at my father all the anger and betrayal I felt blazing in all its intensity through my body. 

“You will go, Freya,” my father said softly, “this is no place you.”

I opened my mouth to protest but my father held a hand up, stopping my words with the sudden gentleness that covered his expression.

“Please, do not argue with me,” he said. His gaze shifted from me to Gavin, “Remove her by force if necessary.”

I never knew if Gavin was going to do as my father asked, because I never gave him the chance. All the anger and frustration I felt boiled over and then I was shaking, words pouring out of me that may have been better left unsaid. 

“Your stubborn blindness will be the death of us all,” I stated, “The darkness comes. Sending me away will not erase that. You will not listen to me. You will not listen to your brother. Who will you listen to?”

“Freya.”

But I wasn’t finished. 

“You haven’t been the same since the night she attacked,” I shook my head, “you’re living out of fear.”

“Freya!”

My father was furious. I saw the anger in his expression, and a little voice warned me that it might be wise to stop. To be still, to quiet my anger in the face of his and quietly go. But I did not. I kept going, shouting at him near the top of my voice. In that moment my anger matched his. And then my father moved towards me, taking a firm hold of my arms. I had never been afraid of my father, but the dark rage I saw in his expression in that moment caused a cold terror to run through my spirit. 

I saw Gavin moving towards me out of the corner of my eye. But he never reached me. Someone else came instead. 

“Release her.”

The thundering authority in the voice caused my father to freeze, his face pale as he did what he was told. I took a few stumbling steps backwards, coming to land safely in Gavin’s hold. But my eyes remained on my father and the larger than life figure making the already crowded tent feel much smaller with his presence. 

The Great Prince gazed down at my father, a sharp rebuke in his eyes, righteous anger blazing forth with a palpable heat. 

“Pride has been the downfall of many of your kin, Gareth son of Gerard,” the Great Prince stated, “would you choose to number yourself among them?”

My father covered his face with his hands, the weight of the Great Prince’s voice bearing down on him with such force that he could not hold his gaze. 

“Do you think yourself so above stumbling?” the Great Prince asked.

“No,” my father answered, his voice hoarse.

“Pride has carried you this far. You believe your glory has been built by your own two hands and do not credit the blessings to the Creator who gave them to you,” the Great Prince’s voice softened as he shook his head, “let go of your pride, Gareth. See clearly.”

I saw the compassion in the expression of the Great Prince in that moment. It was not directed at me and I was stunned speechless at the heart-rending tenderness I saw in his eyes.

“I will unveil your eyes,” the Great Prince said softly, “if you but ask.”

 And then the Great Prince stepped forward, and my father knelt before him. The Great Prince reached out his hand, touching my father gently on the forehead. I knew not what passed in the moments after that, or what was said between them. As with Cormack, there were certain things that I was not meant to hear. But when my father raised his face I saw a peace radiating out from his expression that I’d never seen before, a stillness about his being as if his spirit had at long last settled or at last found its way back home. And then the Great Prince was standing in front of me, placing a large hand on my shoulder, the warmth of his power radiating through his touch and singing into my bones, giving me strength and a stillness in my spirit. I smiled. He smiled back. 

And then he was gone.

It was a beautiful moment then, when my father turned to look at me, remorse coloring his face, and he held his arms out to me. Gavin released me and I stepped forward into my father’s embrace. 

“I’m sorry, Freya,” he whispered, holding me tightly. 

I hugged him tighter in response, unable to speak for the tightness of my throat at the tears I swallowed. But no words were needed. 

***

I was beginning to dislike horses. 

For certain they are a faster means of travel. However, for the second time in less than a day I was being hoisted onto one, remembering the events that had transpired just moments before. 

My father had listened. 

At last. 

With a promise to listen to Cormack and heed whatever direction he gave, my father extracted a promise from me. 

“Go back to Harfeld,” he’d said. 

When I’d opened my mouth to protest he’d held up his hand, stilling my voice, no trace of anger in his expression. And so, I’d kept my silence. 

He wanted me away from the battle, away from the rough living of a warrior’s camp. The dark army had been more difficult to dissuade from the borders than my father had expected. After two weeks of fighting, the Harfeldan warriors had been able to keep secure the Southern border. But it was not without its costs. It would take a little longer to send the dark army scattering. The amount of time taken to do that and travel back to Harfeld was precious with the threat of the witch looming over our heads. 

And the warriors were exhausted. 

But there was little time to lose. My father ordered Gavin to ride to Harfeld and prepare the castle in case of an attack. He would send warriors after us as quickly as he could spare them.

Before I left, I needed to speak with Cormack. There was an urgency to see him that pressed me to slip away from my father’s tent as he gave Gavin detailed orders for the coming days. 

He was being kept in a small tent, guarded by two warriors. With acknowledging nods, they let me enter. Cormack was bound to a pole, his head bowed, chin touching his chest. 

“Well, Cormack,” I said a bit nervously, “or should I say uncle?”

He lifted his face to look at me, a small smile on his lips, “Don’t start being polite to me now.”

I smiled and walked over to sit on the ground in front of him. There were so many questions I wanted to ask, but now that I was able to ask them I couldn’t find my voice. To demand answers seemed cruel in the face of the reception he’d received. I knew what courage it had taken for him to do what he’d done. 

“Come, surely you’re not here simply to enjoy my silent company,” Cormack teased, “tell me what troubles you.”

I bit my lip and shrugged, “I’m leaving.”

Cormack frowned, “Where are you leaving to?”

I ran my palm over the blades of grass and shrugged, “My father is sending me back to Harfeld.”

“I see,” Cormack said, his expression troubled. 

I said nothing. I did not know how to express the foreboding feeling that somehow, going back to Harfeld was a mistake. Somehow, I knew Cormack thought so too however much doing so made sense. Ride back to prepare the warriors under orders of the king. But there was a warning in my heart the returning would not bring about the expected results. And what if the witch came and we could not hold her off? What if the warriors did not return in time? 

“You fear returning,” Cormack said what I would not.

I nodded. 

“I fear what may await you,” he admitted, but then looked at me for a moment, a wry smile pulling his mouth out of seriousness, “But you of all people, should not fear, Freya.”

I glanced up at him. He was regarding me with a mixture of admiration and affection, along with a slight look of pride. I gave him a questioning look, my eyebrows raised. 

“Do you think it at all unusual that you were able to fight off the shadow dwellers in Blackwood Forest?” his cinnamon eyes were earnest, “Or that they Fey called you and you heard well enough to answer?”

I gave him a sharp look, my eyes narrowing in question as to how he knew that. He’d been off hunting, “I thought—”

Cormack was shaking his head vehemently, stilling my words, making me forget whatever argument I’d been about to say. 

“There are only three reasons a person is called by the Fey. Just three,” he said, “sometimes, a wish is granted. Sometimes a curse is bestowed. But sometimes…

He left the tale there, waiting for me to pick up the thread. I knew the rest of the story, I knew what the next words were. My mother had told me the story many times, many times when I was a little girl and the restlessness became too much. I remembered the traces of panic in her eyes as she regarded me, her strange child followed by whispers of being touched by the Fey. Growing up I had never known the reason for those looks. I did now. I knew, and for a moment I was a little girl again, being held in my mother’s arms as she whispered the words.

“Sometimes those called are Fey-called – with magic in their bones, singing in their souls and imprinted on their hearts. A magic that must be realized for the longing to be undone,” I whispered. 

The inescapable truth of the words held us both in silence for a long moment. 

“None but one fey-called could have survived an encounter with dark beings such as the shadow dwellers,” Cormack said with a knowing look.

Cormack smiled at me, “Those called have two choices, Freya.”

He paused, suddenly, his eyes clouding over with pain and regret, the lines around his eyes deepening. 

“To follow the path of light like you have chosen,” again, he paused, “or choose to deal in darkness as I once did.”

I reached out and placed a hand on Cormack’s shoulder, “But no longer.”

He gave me a soft smile and nodded, “But no longer.”

“Is it true then?” I had to know, thinking back to the story he had told me. A story I now knew to be his story, “was your mother a fairy?”

Cormack nodded, his look thoughtful, “She was a half-fey girl. After I was born, she simply went home. She had done what she needed to do.”

She simply went home.

I understood that, perhaps better than I imagined I ever would. “Fey!”

I turned, hearing Gavin calling my name.

“Do not fear the witch, Freya,” Cormack said with a smile, “she should fear you. And we’ll be coming.”

After giving him a brave smile, I left. 

***

A small part of me wanted to beg Gavin not to ride through the night to reach Harfeld castle by dawn, but I held my tongue. My father was not the only one guilty of pride. It was always difficult for me to admit any weakness, however pressing. I would not admit to having slept not more than the pair of hours since I’d fallen asleep in the war room. Night had already fallen. And I was to have several more hours of travel before I could rest. 

“You’ll be all right behind me?” Gavin asked.

There had been a tension of what remained unspoken between us, making our conversations stiff and awkward, unable to hold each other’s eyes for more than a pair of seconds. 

I nodded, “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Gavin shook his head slightly, “Don’t want you getting too tired and falling off the back.”

“I’ll be fine.”

And at first, I was fine. I wrapped my arms around Gavin’s middle, leaning against him, keeping myself awake by counting the amount of times the horses hooves beat the earth, focusing on the discomfort I was feeling. 

Then I felt the tiredness slipping through me until I would lose focus for moments at a time, disappearing into a daydream and returning when I felt myself slipping into sleep. 

Stay awake, I instructed myself, stay awake, sta—

I was in the forest, dancing under the stars. I knew I’d been here before, doing the same thing. And I waited to hear the call from the darkness, beckoning me into the shadows, away from the watchful eyes of the fairies. 

I danced, the will-o-the-wisps darting from tree to tree, their light laughter tinkling in my ears as they brushed by closely, touching my face with their tiny hands, so soft it was like the breath of a breeze. 

  I waited, but the call never came. 

“Where is he?” I paused, my voice overly loud in the silence of the forest. 

The fairies regarded me with bright eyes, their expressions guarded and disapproving. 

“He isn’t coming,” the Lady answered.

I felt my heart turn cold within me, the dread spreading through my body echoed in the sudden cold seeping into the stillness of the air. 

“Why?”

But I already knew the answer, even as the words fell from her lips.

“You chose to be alone,” the Fey Lady replied coldly, “He does not call because he knows you will not answer.”

“No,” I whispered. 

It was all too real. I felt my heart breaking within me, cracking like the bones of my hand had cracked when gripped by a hand too tightly. Only this time the pain was unbearable, and I fell, the air whooshing in my ears . . .

I heard Gavin yell my name. 

But it was too late. By the time I’d opened my eyes I was well on the way to the earth, the surprise of the fall ripping a startled scream from my lips that was cut off with my breath when I hit the ground, an excruciating pain shooting up my arm as I landed. 

The stars were spinning in chaotic circles above me, as I stared at the night sky, trying to orient myself against the adrenaline pounding through my body, pushing back a pain I knew was coming. I lay still, even when Gavin slid to his knees beside me. 

“Fey, are you all right?” he sounded frantic, “Fey. Answer me!”

I nodded, and sat up slowly, “Yes, I’m fine.”

And then he was reaching out, pulling me to my feet, running his hands over my arms and legs to make certain I was actually fine. When he touched my right forearm, I sucked in my breath against the pain. 

Gavin muttered a mild curse under his breath, his fingers gentle as they inspected my injury. 

“Your arm is broken,” he ripped apart his cloak to make me a wrap and a sling, “though you’re lucky you didn’t break your neck.”

He came to me, expertly wrapping my arm tightly in the makeshift splint, tying the sling tightly at the back of my neck, effectively strapping my arm to my chest. He glanced at me, and I stared starkly back unable to check the tears that flowed down my cheeks, clearly visible in the bright moonlight.

“Remind me never to believe you again when you say you’re fine,” he said quietly, reaching up and cupping my face in his hands to swipe at my tears with his thumbs. I wanted to step away from him and step closer to him in the same instance. The two desires pulled me equally, and I balanced between them unable to fall one way or another. I felt as if I was on the edge of a precipice, one wrong move and my careful balancing act would fail. 

Gavin was there too, I saw it in the strain in his expression. The restraint I felt in his touch, the way he stood just close enough but not too close. 

I remained still, but I could not bring myself to step away from him. The lack of sleep had worn my nerves thin, and there was nothing more I wanted to do than step towards him, have him wrap me up in a hug and tell me everything was all right, that we would be all right at the end of this. 

“Why is this so hard?” I whispered. 

I never meant to say the things I ended up saying to Gavin. There was a level of deepness to our friendship that made it impossible to lie about what was going on in the heart. He stepped close to me, pressing a light kiss to my forehead. I gripped his arm with my left hand, my fingers digging into the cloth of his shirt, breathing deeply, hoping to somehow suck up his strength. His arms never came around me, but his hands resting lightly on each of my shoulders was embrace enough. And we stood that way for a moment. Close, barely touching, breathing in and out. 

The horse neighed and pawed the ground impatiently with his hoof, breaking the stillness that had enveloped the two of us. Silently, on a release of breath, we knew it was time to keep going. Without a word, Gavin stepped away from me and led the horse over to where I stood. He carefully helped me up into the saddle before swinging up to sit behind me. His arms came around me to grip the reins. I leaned my back against his chest, trusting him to keep me from falling when the horse was spurred to motion. 

“I’m sorry I didn’t say goodbye,” he whispered.

“I know,” I whispered back. 

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